In this upcoming all-night ruck, everyone moves as a team, so the slowest person sets the pace. Hopefully that’s not me–there will be a lot of cardio studs with lungs like jet turbines. I can live with it if I end up as the “weak sister,” but actually I think I’m in luck. The team has to schlep a 30# “team weight” and a jerry can of water (maybe 40#) throughout the night, and though that may not sound like fun, it’s good news for me. Even though I’d be lucky just to be middle-of-the-pack aerobically, I’ve misspent much of my life lifting heavy things, so I think I can serve the team as The Guy Who Can Lug the Can.

To that end, today’s game was to suitcase-carry Alik the 16kg Kettlebell up the Rock of Faeries without setting him down, while also wearing the Luxurious Belgian Backpack of Bricks. I was shocked at how well it went. As long as I switched hands often and slowed down enough to only breathe through my nose, I could schlep along indefinitely and stay in the Happy Zone, high on endorphins. In fact, the trip went so smoothly that I stretched it out and did a second lap and still finished with a big smile on my face.




The Seduction of Soviet Gear

dtl6qcw7aOld Soviet gear is often ugly, heavy, and uncomfortable. What can make it a winner is that it streamlines your life. You may get bored or sore, but you will get a lot done.

As an example, my friend and I both love exercise, but we have totally different setups. He has a membership to a beautiful, clean, abundantly equipped gym, whereas I have a hot, dirty garage full of kettlebells. My setup is Soviet in its philosophy: it looks drab and monotonous, but it makes my life simple. When I want a workout, I just (1) open the garage door and (2) exercise. I can easily do this every day, even twice a day. I don’t even have to change clothes. Heck, sometimes I bang out some pullups in my suit on the way to work. In contrast, my friend’s quintessentially American gym membership looks much more appealing, but it is logistically complicated. To work out, he must (1) pack a gym bag, (2) drive to the gym, (3) park and enter, (4) change clothes, (5) find a squat rack that is not monopolized by someone else, and finally do steps (6-10) in reverse. It takes a lot of time, it is a pain in the ass to fit into his day, and it takes a lot of discipline. Me, I’m lazy, and as a result I exercise 10 times more than my friend.

The Russian approach is not necessarily cheaper. This is a common misunderstanding. Durable goods are expensive. Contrary to myth, AK rifles are hard and expensive to make. The reason that Eastern Bloc gear is available dirt cheap to me is that it was mass-produced at huge expense to governments that no longer exist and is now surplussed off for pennies on the ruble. So the stuff in my garage cost Brezhnev and Ceausescu big money and then I snapped it up for $4 at their garage sale.

My menagerie of kettlebells would probably cost me $1000 today. Just shipping a 90# cannonball is a big deal. But it was a onetime cost. I’ve had my kettlebells for 20 years, handled them roughly with no ill effect, and a century from now they will still be used by my great-great-great-grand-dogs. Contrast my friend, who pays $1000 for his gym membership every year.

His setup is much cooler, with lots of options, but it has an over-abundance of features I don’t want to pay for. And features are another area where the Soviet designers chose simplicity. My friend’s gym has Precor treadmills that I love because they are technological marvels. You can adjust the slope and speed, choose from preset programs or customize your own, monitor time and distance and calories burned, measure your heart rate using touch sensors (!), and watch entertainment on an integrated TV screen. But most of that stuff is stupid and, aside from being hugely expensive, the treadmills have so many features that they are fragile. At any given time, 20% are broken and awaiting a service call by repair staff, who probably charge good money. In contrast, my kettlebells have only one feature: they are cannonballs with a handle and they never break.

Instead of features, the Soviet designers went for versatility, which is a little different. The kettlebell is optimized for nothing, but you can use it on a “close enough” basis for many things. Squat it? Yeah, good enough. Weighted pullups? Yeah, close enough, you just hang it off your foot. It sucks but it works. Circuit training? Absolutely. Train the deadlift? Yeah, close enough, you just swing it a lot. Cardio when you have no space to run in? Sure, it’s not optimal but it’s good enough. I have also dragged kettlebells, thrown them, carried them in many positions, juggled them, used them as doorstops, tied errant dogs to them, and pounded soybeans with them. When I was in grad school, I think all I owned was a laptop and some kettlebells. Maybe you could say the kettlebell is “strategically underspecialized.” Contrast Nautilus machines or Hammer Strength machines. The Hammer machines are brilliant designs and so durable they could almost be Russian, but they only do one thing apiece and even now that I have a salary, I don’t have money and space to buy a dozen specialized machines.

101Finally, Soviet gear is always very easy to learn. The designers did not care about ergonomic comfort. In their machines, the Soviets left out many automated or labor-saving features and instead made the end-users pick up the slack by doing those things manually. But the Soviets were design geniuses at simplifying things for the user conceptually. You can figure out a lot of Soviet gear just by watching a quick demonstration and practicing. Especially if you are spurred along by motivational beatings from the sergeant!

The Soviets were designing for teenage draftees who might be functionally illiterate and scarcely understand Russian. (Remember, the USSR had 14 major languages and 51 million citizens who did not know Russian!) They were assured only four quick training cycles under brutal conditions, and then after two years they would go home and forget all their training. But thirty years later they might be called up from the reserves suddenly, issued their old equipment, and fed into battle with no refresher training. So the designers assumed an end-user who might (a) understand nothing the trainers said and then (b) forget almost everything.

They also wanted to minimize the variety and amount of stuff traveling up and down their chronically overstressed supply chain. They wanted fewer parts, less breakage, fewer trips to repair depots, and fewer training sessions. We often say the Soviets prized “reliable” gear, but more precisely, they wanted it to be reliable for the supply officers. It was not necessarily super reliable for the operator: Mosin-Nagant rifles seize up constantly and need to be hammered open, and Soviet vehicles were not designed to be “survivable” for the crew. But their gear is ingeniously optimized for giving a mass army a reliable supply. It seldom breaks, and when it does, the soldier can patch it up in the field well enough to keep it limping along at some minimal level of effectiveness. That soldier may not survive with his patched-up equipment, but there are millions more soldiers in the army who can carry on the fight when he is gone. The designers are interested in supplying the army, not the individual.

But then why would you choose Soviet gear?! If they made it to benefit the logisticians, not the end-user (i.e. you), why would you want it? The answer is that you are also your own logistician. You are responsible for securing equipment you can afford and you are responsible for organizing training for the end-user (i.e. yourself). Since you are responsible for overseeing maintenance, if you do not trust the end-user (yourself) to be diligent about that, you want forgiving gear. You are also the repair depot, so you might want something that you can fix yourself or throw away and replace without a second thought.

20180712_184710This is really huge: no one cares if they manage to break their Soviet gear. But when I have nice gear, I baby it and don’t want to risk it. Take as an example my “Tale of Two Hatchets.” On top is the hatchet I inherited from the grandfather I never met. It is gorgeous and nimble, so I would hate to hit something wrong and bend the edge. Therefore I use it a little tentatively. On bottom is a Soviet surplus hatchet. Calling it “rough-hewn” would be entirely too poetic. It is downright crude. But it hits like Thor’s own hammer, and since I only spent $20 on it, I would not weep if I somehow contrived to break it. In fact, it would be something to brag about.





Vanya vs. The Backpack


Behold the face of endorphins!

A wise man once told me, “There’s magic in loaded carries.” I did what I always do with really great advice: I ignored it as long as possible. But 2018 is shaping up as Jason’s Year of Loaded Carries.

Today’s game was to hump Vanya the 32kg Bell and the Backpack of Bricks up the ridge and back without letting either one touch the ground.

This was stupid but sublime. Stupid because even though I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to take off my pack, I still carried my water in there, making for a thirsty trek and proving that it’s not just my backpack that is full of bricks. But adding the backpack of bricks was transcendent: it’s only 30 lbs., but it pulls you off your already-weird axis, at a different angle from the kettlebell.

Strangely, the weighted carries have improved my yoga. They share a lot of commonalities. Yoga teaches you to recruit the 1,001 tiny, unglamorous muscles of the trunk and pelvis in any combination, and then you give them prolonged on-the-job-training by carrying heavy things over broken terrain. In both cases, if you are going to last 90 minutes without crumpling, you need to use them judiciously, resting some and relying on others in alternation.

In both cases, you have to “let the breath lead you.” That sounds metaphysical, but I mean something very mundane: If you are going to last an hour, you have to relax under the load enough to subsist on rich, deep nose breathing. You can last indefinitely that way. But the clock starts ticking on your stamina as soon as you start breathing roughly through your mouth. Your body stiffens up as your muscular tension rises, and you’ll be able to put on a burst of speed or power, but only for minutes or seconds before you have to stop and recover.

Vanya + Jason = Happiness

As my friends know, I struggle with Athletic Distractibility/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). When untreated, I train ineffectually for unrelated events all at once, like the highland games, mud run, and NorCaldic biathlon. For today’s act of foolishness, I humped Vanya the 32kg Bell from the Writing Cottage of the Immortals to the top of the Rock of Faeries.

Within 50m I worried I’d bitten off too much, but I was saved by the awesome geometry of the kettlebell: you can carry it overhead, shouldered, racked on the chest, or like a suitcase, shifting positions and hands to stay fresh. So even without good rucking muscles, I managed OK in all but the steepest parts. But tomorrow I’ll need hospice workers to come feed me breakfast through a tube.